Saturday, August 08, 2020

Storyteller's Rulebook: Create a False Mystery

I haven’t mentioned it in years, but one of the two screenplays I got that won some money and got me signed by a big-deal manager was my biopic of Alan Turing. It had a lot of big fans in Hollywood but they said they couldn’t make it because Turing was gay, so my manager gave up on it. A few years later, social mores had changed, and another Turing script went out, which sold for a million dollars and won an Oscar. Oh, well.

When I was structuring the script, I decided to play a trick. My script covered many years and ended with my hero’s suicide, which is kind of a bummer. I decided to begin with the discovery of his body and have a government investigator suspect foul play and reconstruct the story of Turing’s life. In the end: Nope, it was just a suicide. But the false mystery provided more structure than the script would have had otherwise.

“Little Fires Everywhere” does a similar thing. The Richardson house has burned down and everybody naturally suspects daughter Izzy, who has disappeared.
  • “What’s so funny?” Lexie said.
  • “Just picturing Izzy running around striking matches everywhere.” He snorted. “The nutcase.”
  • Moody drummed a finger on the roof rack. “Why is everybody so sure she did it?”
  • “Come on.” Trip jumped down off the car. “It’s Izzy. And we’re all here. Mom’s here. Dad’s on his way. Who’s missing?”
  • “So Izzy’s not here. She’s the only one who could be responsible?”
  • “Responsible?” put in Lexie. “Izzy?”
  • “Dad was at work,” Trip said. “Lexie was at Serena’s. I was over at Sussex playing ball. You?”
  • Moody hesitated. “I biked over to the library.”
  • “There. You see?” To Trip, the answer was obvious. “The only ones here were Izzy and Mom. And Mom was asleep.”
  • “Maybe the wiring in the house shorted. Or maybe someone left the stove on.”
  • “The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie said. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.”
  • “We all know she’s always been mental.” Trip leaned back against the car door.
  • “You’re all always picking on her,” Moody said. “Maybe that’s why she acts mental.”
  • Across the street, the fire trucks began to reel in their hoses. The three remaining Richardson children watched the firemen set down their axes and peel away their smoky yellow coats.
  • “Someone should go over and stay with Mom,” Lexie said, but no one moved.
  • After a minute, Trip said, “When Mom and Dad find Iz, they are going to lock her up in a psych ward for the rest of her life.”
  • No one thought about the recent departure of Mia and Pearl from the house on Winslow Road.
We already sense that Moody is, in some ways, smarter than his brother and sister, and he has his doubts about Izzy. Then Ng points out that nobody has connected the fire yet to the disappearance of two more people: Mia and Pearl. The implication is clear: Izzy probably didn’t do it, and the reader is invited to spend the book trying to guess the real culprit.

And in the end, we find out the culprit is… Izzy, working alone, who went around the house starting little fires everywhere, just as Lexie and Trip assumed. It was a false mystery, tricking us into reading avidly. 
But ultimately it’s fair, for the same reason my own false mystery was fair, because Turing ultimately was sort of murdered by a larger conspiracy, and lots more people were ultimately responsible the complex chain of events that led Izzy to start the fires. It turns out to be worthwhile, in both stories, to closely examine the events leading up to this tragedy to discover the complex web of ill-will that led up to it. 
Both stories are fairly diffuse, and brought into sharper relief by beginning with a flash-forward and a false mystery. It’s a devious trick, but I recommend it with some stories.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Little Fires Everywhere

Why it might be hard to care for the heroes of this book:
  • First of all, because we meet a ton of characters in these ten pages and it’s not at all clear who will be the main protagonist …and even when the novel’s over, it will still be hard to say. This is a true ensemble novel, even more diffuse than “Game of Thrones”, because it puts us in more heads.
  • Then there’s the question of POV. We’re hopping into a lot of heads, but there’s another POV to take into account. When we meet Lexie, we jump into her thoughts:
    • She glanced at her brothers, at her mother, still in her bathrobe on their tree lawn, and thought, They have literally nothing but the clothes on their backs
  • …then there’s a comment: 
    • Literally was one of Lexie’s favorite words, which she deployed even when the situation was anything but literal. In this case, for once, it was more or less true. 
  • Who is saying that literally is one of Lexie’s favorite words? Lexie probably wouldn’t say that about herself, and she certainly wouldn’t say that she misuses it. So whose head are we in right here? Ng’s. As with Rowling and Vernon Dursely, we are meeting these suburbanites from a jaundiced point of view and that POV is the author’s own.
  • First she has to get us to believe in this world, with she does effortlessly with a wealth of odd little details. Ng grew up in Shaker Heights in the 90s, so she has fun facts readily at hand. (“All the notes Serena had written her since the sixth grade, still folded in paper footballs”)
  • Then she has to get us to believe in the Richardsons. This is tricky because, as I said above, we’re looking down on the judgmentally. On a certain level we’re supposed to scoff, roll our eyes, and say “typical suburbanites.” But they also have to seem real in very specific ways. 
  • It’s also hard because she’s pretty much introducing this six member family all at once. That’s always super-risky. I thought, “Oh no, I’ll never get these characters straight.” But I needn’t have worried. As with Martin, Ng is a master at lightning-fast fully-realized characterization. Every chance she gets to differentiate the family members, she does so: 
    • Last year it had paid for their trip to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lexie had perfected her backstroke and Trip had bewitched all the local girls and Moody had sunburnt to a peeling crisp and Izzy, under great duress, had finally agreed to come down to the beach—fully clothed, in her Doc Martens, and glowering. 
  • Or: 
    • Out in the driveway, she saw that Trip’s Jeep was gone, as was Lexie’s Explorer, and Moody’s bike, and, of course, her husband’s sedan. 
  • Then she has to get us to believe in The Warrens. Once again, we do so not by jumping into their heads, but by looking at them with jaundiced eyes, in this case the eyes of the Richardsons: 
    • They knew there was no Mr. Warren, and that Mia was thirty-six, according to the Michigan driver’s license she had provided. They noticed that she wore no ring on her left hand, though she wore plenty of other rings: a big amethyst on her first finger, one made from a silver spoon handle on her pinkie, and one on her thumb that to Mrs. Richardson looked suspiciously like a mood ring. 
  • The wealth of detail makes it easy to believe in the reality of all eight characters (and more to come.) 
So how does Ng get us to care?
  • Again, we’ll start with the Richardsons: We sense right away that these may be clueless, overprivileged white people, but hey, their house just burned down. As Lexie observes, everybody but her has only the clothes on their backs. We don’t know yet if they deserve this to some extent, and we suspect they might, but even so, it’s an outsized humiliation. No fair court of law would sentence you to have your house burnt down.
  • As for the Warrens, we meet Mia and Pearl though the judgmental eyes of the Richardsons and we sense that these judgments are unfair, so we’re inclined to feel for them. We then get a chance to bond with Mia in a way that we haven’t really bonded with anyone, when we jump into her head to share her fright at this freaky world.
    • Large motor scooters, each piloted by a man in an orange work suit, zipped down each driveway to collect the garbage in the privacy of the backyard, ferrying it to the larger truck idling out in the street, and for months Mia would remember their first Friday on Winslow Road, the fright she’d had when the scooter, like a revved-up flame-colored golf cart, shot past the kitchen window with engine roaring
But what about Invest?
  • Ng does an amazing job in these ten pages of introducing this world, these characters, and a compelling flashforward towards a climax that implies a big mystery, but she doesn’t have time to introduce a problem to be solved, so we don’t really invest in anybody yet. In a book with a large ensemble, we search for the character that wants something, but nobody wants much in these 10 pages. In the next ten pages we’ll get our first character who really wants something, Moody, who will come to want Pearl. But we don’t really invest in him either.
  • To a certain extent, this is not a book about the solving of a large problem. There will eventually be a unifying plot, but it will take almost a hundred pages for it to coalesce.
  • Ng’s Shaker Heights will ultimately have certain things in common with another nearby municipality: Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” The flashforward to the fire will give this book a lot more structure than that one had (or at least the illusion of structure), but they’re doing something similar: Putting us in a dozen Buckeye heads and inviting us to feel the weight of the modern condition.
  • In a Barnes and Noble podcast, Ng says of her book, “Everyone has thoughts about what’s going on, but nobody in the book has all the pieces, and I guess even when you’ve got all the pieces it’s not always easy to figure out what’s right.” That’s the goal of all truly-omniscient narrators, whether it’s George R. R. Martin or Leo Tolstoy or Ng. Ultimately, the large problem is life itself, and the only hero who can attempt to solve that problem is the reader, because only we have all the facts.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Podcast Art Question (And Big News!)

Big news: A great podcast network has offered to host and monetize us (in a non-annoying way!  Full announcement to come later). James said he was on board with the conditions that we finally change the music and the art, both of which he has long kvetched about. I have a great composer composing new music for us as we speak. As for art, James wants something that acknowledges his existence. As always, I thought I might involve you in the process! 

As you’ll recall, here’s the current art, which is just a square version of the cover of my book:

James worked this up at one point, which is fun, but I thought it was too busy:

So for this new opportunity, I starting working on a vastly simplified version of the above, and got as far as doing this:

But then I sighed in exhaustion. The artifacting around our heads just looks too amateurish, our necks end too awkwardly, etc. It’s just not good. James said he really wanted actual art, like this Harmontown art:

So, in a fit of desperation, I just drew this new logo in 15 seconds using my mouse in Photoshop:

And, wonder of wonders, James and I both kinda like it. It’s pretty ironic that this is the less amateurish version. But that’s its appeal, to a certain extent. So what do you guys think. Dare we go with this ridiculous version? Should we do this version with better art? 

But wait!  We have a new contender!  Commenter Friday whipped this one up!  What do you think?
Thanks for all of your input on so many things these past few weeks!

Monday, August 03, 2020

The Annotation Project: Little Fires Everywhere

Hi, everybody! It’s been a long time since we’ve done a new Annotation hasn’t it? Well, let’s not beat around the bush: I want a more diverse pool of examples for my book! So let’s explore some great authors, screenwriters and pilot-writers I haven’t covered, shall we? Let’s start with annotations for the first ten pages of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng. You can download these as a Word document here

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

My Big Question for You: How to Organize the Book?

Okay, guys, time for the big question: How on Earth should I organize this damn thing? In the pitch I sold, I proposed organizing it by example. Start out with some fun personal stuff like the last book, then have three longs chapters about Believe, Care and Invest (Possibly now to become Connect, Care, Commit?), then have 50 3-page chapters about 10 books, 10 movies, 10 TV pilots, maybe 10 non-fiction books, maybe 10 comics, something like that.

But now I’m doubting that. Obviously I’ve just done 20 movies here so far on the blog (more in raw data form than the actual essays I’d write for the book) That’s more examples than I’d off in the book, but right away it started feeling a little monotonous to me. If I just frog march my readers through 50 examples, pointing out similar things about each one, it could be hard to read the whole thing.

So I’m freaking out. So here are some other ideas:

I could organize it around pieces of advice, such as using humiliation, then give a lot of examples of that. The problem is that that’s the way I organized my last book, and it might seem too similar.

So here’s a new idea: Organize it around reasons that characters will be hard to identify with. Jerk heroes we love. Passive heroes we love. Petulant heroes we love. Then look at a bunch of examples of each and how they’ve overcome this baked-in liability. As we’ve seen, every great hero breaks some rule of identification, as well they should. You don’t want to have a mathematically-perfect Likeable Character. Something specific about this particular character is going to create a speed bump to likeability, and then you use your powers to get your audience over that speed bump.

I’d had an idea for another book called “The Exceptions: How to Break Every Writing Rule”. What if I kind of combined the ideas?

I dunno.  Any other ideas?  Organize my book and I’ll thank you in the acknowledgments!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Should I Be Asking About Compassion?

In my first book, I point out that a moment of humanity sometimes involves compassion, and I’ve begun to wonder if BCI discounts compassion too much. Specifically I caught on this exchange in Iron Man.
  • Do you plan to report on the millions we’ve saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intellicrops?
Going back ten years, I’ve launched a lot of broadsides against “Save the Cat” and its idea of a big heroic moment at the beginning, but have I gone too much in the other direction? It just makes sense that compassion would play a role in making a hero likeable. I really wish I had been keeping this in mind as I rewatched the first 15 minutes of the 20 movies we’ve done so far, because now it’s hard to remember if there was a lot of compassion in each of these:
  • The 40 Year Old Virgin: Well, I think he generally feels like a compassionate person, but does he really have a moment of compassion?
  • Alien: Not really? She’s the only one who visits Parker and Brett, but not really out of compassion.
  • An Education: Not really?
  • The Babadook: She’s exceptionally kind to the old folks at the home she works in.
  • The Bourne Identity: He seems like a nice guy, but… not really?
  • Blazing Saddles: Not really? His rebellion at the beginning may be showing compassion for the Chinese woman who passes out out, but there’s no indication he even saw that.
  • Blue Velvet: Not really?
  • Bridesmaids: Not really?
  • Casablanca: Well, he cuts off the girl who’s drinking too much?
  • Chinatown: He claims he helps out people who need it, but we’re not sure we believe him.
  • Do the Right Thing: Not really?
  • Donnie Brasco: Not really?
  • Frozen: Again, I think she generally feels like a compassionate person, but does she really have a moment of compassion?
  • Get Out: He checks on the deer.
  • Groundhog Day: No.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: He won’t kill Toothless.
  • In a Lonely Place: He’s nice to the old drunken actor.
  • Iron Man: He talks about feeding the world, but we’re not sure we believe him. Certainly the reporter seems dubious.
  • Lady Bird: Not really?
Inevitably, I’m going to end up rewatching all these, and I’ll look closer for a moment of compassion in each one.  Should I start asking this question on the movies going forward?  Are there moments of compassion I’m missing in these movies?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Okay, So Where Are We? (Oh, and By the Way, I Sold a New Book)

Okay, guys, I’m not supposed to announce this yes, but yes, as I’m sure many of you have guessed, I sold a new book! We haven’t settled on a title yet, but my pitch was entitled “Believe, Care, Invest: How to Get Anyone to Fall in Love With Your Hero in Ten Pages or Less”. We haven’t sealed the deal yet, but it looks like it’ll be coming from Penguin Random House sooner rather than later after I turn it in!

As soon as we had an offer, I started panicking and posting movie BCI pieces everyday, not as a first draft of the book, but as data gathering. Now that we’re halfway through the alphabet let’s go ahead and figure out what we’ve got so far:

  • Why the hero might be hard to identify with: I didn’t have this when we did the BCI novel pieces, but I think it’s essential, and might be a main organizing principle of the book.
  • Believe: One of the things I’m learning is that the things that make a character believable are the same things that make them hard to like (such as the sordidness of Jake Gittes’s P. I. business.)
  • Care: I’m getting a better sense of this.
  • Invest: I’m inclined to stick with the BCI language because I’ve already used it in my first book, but I have wondered if I should stick with this word. Part of the problem with my title is that “Believe, Care, Invest” sounds like a book about investing! I kind of prefer “root for” now, but I’m not sure.
That brings us to James’s Five E’s. I sort of included these just as a joke because we had just discussed them on the podcast, but I do think James is really onto something with most of these. I won’t break down every example in the book according to these, but I think I will talk about four of them frequently.
  • Eat: It is wild how common this is and how much it does seem to add to each of these movies. A huge part of Believability.
  • Exercise: This was already on the checklist and it’s clearly a big part of Invest.
  • Economic Activity: This is also clearly very important, sometimes for Believe, Care, and Invest.
  • Enjoy: This is clearly another big contributor to Believability. It goes far towards making a character, especially if they’re in a bad situation, feel like a complete human.
  • Emulate: If you go through those 20 pieces, you’ll see that I found this in more than a few movies, but I’ve never been convinced it plays a big role in Believe, Care, or Invest.
And the final two categories I’ve been considering so far: 
  • Rise above: I think that my contribution to the the Five E’s turns out to be essential. I think I’ve discovered almost every character eventually rises above their economic situation (walks off their job) at some point, but when they do so (sooner or later) is a big part of what defines them. There’s probably some big theory still to be gleaned from digging into that data. 
  •  High five a black guy: I think I’ll stop including these in these blog posts, and certainly won’t focus on this in the book. It’s a funny phrase, and a good way to skewer some movies (like Blue Velvet!), but it’s not an issue in many movies.

But that brings me to another issue that I’ve begun to feel I should be examining in each movie. In my first book, I point out that a moment of humanity sometimes involves compassion, and I’ve begun to wonder if BCI discounts compassion too much.  Let’s discuss that next time...

Monday, July 20, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Lady Bird

Why Lady Bird might be hard to identify with:
  • She’s bratty. Her mom asks “How did I raise such a snob?” She’s a little racist to her Latino brother.
  • She begins by saying: “Do you think I look like I came from Sacramento?” We’ve never heard it put in quite that way, but we instantly identify: We’ve all wondered if our hometown leaves a taint on us. (Think about how terrible the generic version would be: “One day I’m going to make it out of this town and be somebody!”)
  • One thing that could fall under both Believe and Care: She’s strident about things she’s wrong about. Again, we empathize, because we all remember what it was like to be precocious. She seems believably 17, moreso than most screen teens.
  • Her mom is emotionally abusive: “You’re not even worth state tuition. Just go to city college, with your work ethic. Just go to city college, and then to jail, and then back to city college.” But she’s also accurate in some ways (“You don’t think about anybody but yourself,”) so it hits home.
  • She pretends to know who Jim Morrison is when flirting with a guy, which is the sort of thing that always makes us wince with identification.
  • She certainly does something active to protect herself from her mother’s verbal abuse, but it’s not exactly the cleverest solution: She jumps out of the moving car. Cut to a pink cast that has “Fuck you mom” written on it. So she’s kind of bad ass in a very hapless way.
  • We admire her gumption. She runs for student government knowing she won’t win, and makes cool posters. She tries out for the musical with no experience and she’s the only one who dresses up.
  • We admire her wit, although sometimes when she thinks she’s intentionally and unintentionally funny at the same time.
Five Es
  • Eat: She and the family have eggs. She and her friend wolf down communion wafers.
  • Exercise: Other than jumping out of the car, no. We don’t even see her in gym class in the school montage.
  • Economic Activity: Lots of class resentment. Eventually she will get a job at a coffee shop.
  • Enjoy: She and her mom share a good cry as they finish the audiobook of “Grapes of Wrath”. She and her friend giggle and talk about masturbation.
  • Emulate: She and her friend look at models in a magazine and say, “Why can’t I look like that.” They imagine what life would be like if they lived in a nice house. They say of a classmate: “She’s so pretty, her skin is luminous, we should try tanning.”
Rise above
  • She will later ignore her coffeeshop customers to hit on one guy and comfort another.
High five a black guy
  • Just the opposite: She’s a little bit racist towards her adopted Latino brother.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Iron Man

Why it might be hard to identify with Tony
  • He’s an asshole. He’s a merchant of death. He’s a trust fund baby. His womanizing has not aged well.
  • He’s so disarming and relaxed in the back of the Hum-V that he feels real. (“I don’t want to see this on your MySpace page”) He has distinct metaphor family and attitudes. Later, I love that he’s listening to “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies (“I just wanted a Pepsi!”) while he’s working. He’s not a stereotype of a rich guy or engineer. He feels like you could have a beer with him.
  • But we would despise him if his Hum-V caravan wasn’t blown up by terrorists. Then a bomb with his own name on it explodes and his shirt fills up with blood. Then he wakes up in a cave where terrorists are seemingly making a blackmail video of him. Then he finds out that his weapons are being used on innocent people. He has a bad day.
  • Everyone is amazed and intimidated by him. “You’ve been called the Da Vinci of our time.” He asks, “Feared or respected, is it too much to ask for both?”, and he does get both.
  • The ultimate bad-ass shorthand: Cool guys don’t look at explosions.  Yes, I will share the video again: 

Five Es
  • Eat: He’s drinking alcohol.
  • Exercise: Not really.
  • Economic Activity: He’s closing a big sale when we first meet him.
  • Enjoy: He’s very much enjoying himself, no matter what he does.
  • Emulate: He’s emulating his father a bit, but also refusing to do so.
Rise above
  • He doesn’t show up to get a business award because he’s playing in a casino instead. Then he gives the award away to a casino girl.
High five a black guy
  • A black guy says that Tony is his friend and mentor (but it’s a fully-realized character, so it’s not bad.)